An article from Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU)

We'll eat trees in the future

The discovery of special enzymes may alter our diets – and the way we look at trees.

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Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU)

NMBU's research is enabling people all over the world to tackle the big, global challenges regarding the environment, sustainable development, how to improve human and animal health, renewable energy sources, food production, and land- and resource management.

Norwegian researchers have discovered new enzymes that can break down plant material quicker. As a result, we may be able to use non-edible plants in human food and plant based soda bottles in the future.

Optimal utilization of biomass

This is a significant discovery in regard to the technology development needed to establish the future bioeconomy, where optimal utilization of biomass is a key success factor.

This kind of technology will offer new opportunities for the wood products industry, and can become the key to finding new areas of use for non-edible plants, forest waste, straw and grass.

Same building blocks

The carbohydrates in trees contain the same building blocks, and have the same structure, as many of the carbohydrates in other edible plant material.

As a result, carbohydrates from trees can be extracted and added to food products in the future.

Similar carbohydrates from non-edible plant material is already in use in animal feed today.


"The new enzymes we have discovered open up new opportunities for biorefining. These new insights contribute to making the degradation process for plant material more effective," says Bjørge Westereng at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU).

The efficiency in such processes depend entirely on breaking down plant cell walls in an effective way, in order to build new materials.

"The bioeconomy will play an important role in the world in the years to come. This means that we will use biological material as a base for making new materials and replacing petroleum based materials, such as plastic packaging," Westereng explains.

A pioneering environment in enzyme-research

Back in 2010, researchers at NMBU made an important breakthrough in the understanding of cellulose, which is an important building block in plants, containing much of the energy in plant materials.

The researchers found a new type of enzymes that utilized an – until then – unknown oxidative mechanism.

As breaking down cellulose into sugar molecules is a difficult task, which must be solved in order to speed up the bioeconomy, this discovery attracted a lot of attention all over the world, it has contributed to revolutionising the field of biorefinery.

New breakthrough

Now the same research group has made another breakthrough where they demonstrate that these new enzymes, somewhat unexpectedly, also are essential in breaking down other carbohydrates in the plant cell walls, called hemicelluloses. Hemicelluloses constitute approximately 1/3 of the plant biomass.

"What is revolutionary with the discovery is that this class of enzymes break down a wider range of building blocks in the plant cell walls, the hemicelluloses," says Westereng.

"The enzymes we have discovered are of a type that can access parts of the plant cell walls that other enzymes cannot easily access. In this way they make the process of breaking down plant cell walls more effective, a bit like the sword on the Gordian knot," he explains.

Better understanding of fungi-attacks

The new discovery is also of great significance for understanding how pathogenic fungi attack plants.

"Enzymes pour out in large amounts early on when plants are attacked, and are probably among the most important weapons the fungi has in its attack," says Westereng.

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